Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Sam Roggeveen asks an interesting question: if you face an uncertain strategic future, how do you structure a defence force?

Any threat from a major Asian land power is so unpredictable at present that to structure the ADF only against that vague threat is risky. Even if you accept that there may be a threat from a major Asian land power sometime in the future, there is no indication at the moment as to how it might manifest itself (cyber, invasion, interdiction of sea routes, intimidation, regional destabilisation, new technology). So to put all the resources into a few specific capabilities is dangerous.

Asymmetry is totally misunderstood as a basis for force structuring (get lots of subs because the enemy must expend considerable resources to overcome them). There is no asymmetry if an enemy has time to react and adapt. It certainly seems to me that the current threat to Australian and Western values is from Islamic extremism and there is a long way to run on that, and the ADF may yet have a role to play.

I would also suggest that there is likely to be any number of small wars of the nature of Iraq or Afghanistan that the Australian Government may want to have the option of being involved in before any conflict with a major Asian land power.

All of this contributes to the strategic uncertainty Sam speaks about, and I am delighted to see that others might be coming to realise that the problems starts here. My shorthand for defence planning, in a period of uncertainty or otherwise, is as follows:

  • How much should be spent on defence (implying structure, materiel types and numbers) should be decided by the strategic environment.
  • When it is spent should be decided by the relationship between the time a threat is likely to materialise (warning time) and the time it takes to develop defence capability (defence preparation time).
  • How much is actually spent is decided by governments after considering all priorities and how much risk is acceptable.

In a period of strategic uncertainty it is necessary to take the emphasis off the materiel inputs to defence (ship, planes, tanks and personnel), decide on a defence output, and to stay away from fanciful contingencies adopted to justify a particular level of funding. In uncertainty, the focus must be on what defence can do in a generic, conceptual way, not on what defence has. Here is an example of a defence output.

But Sam's question betrays one of the really big problems the commentariat faces in contributing to the defence debate. Consider his last para:

The answer to this dilemma (strategic uncertainty), it is sometimes argued, is just to give up on prediction altogether and develop a 'balanced force', one which can respond to all sorts of unknowable contingencies. But that's not a neutral choice. A jack-of-all-trades Defence Force will be master of none.

Strategic uncertainty does not mean giving up on prediction at all. If it is accepted that a balanced force is part of the answer to strategic uncertainty, predictions based on informed judgment will determine how balanced the force must be, how fast the strategic environment will change, and the conceptual, generic nature of the unknowable contingencies.

A balanced force, if it is derived from the demands of the strategic environment and shaped by judgments or predictions on warning time moderated by knowledge of how long it takes to develop defence capability, will be a capable force. The aim of such a force will be to give realistic options to government, one of which might be to commit to small wars with relatively little warning, or to expand if necessary to handle larger contingencies.

Now suppose that we go through the methodology above and come up with the balanced force that is appropriate to meet the demands of the strategic environment, but the government decides it cannot fund it. That does not negate the need for a balanced force structure derived from the uncertain strategic environment, it merely gives guidance as to how to manage the sub-optimal force structure that government underfunding forces on the nation. Underfunding can make a sub-optimal 'balanced' force look quite strange, but there can still be logic.

If a balanced force of a certain size and shape is needed yet all parts of it cannot be funded, that also does not justify a force structure disproportionately based around narrow capabilities such as subs or fighter aircraft. The strategic environment determines what is needed, and government decides what it can afford. A great failing of current thinking is the erroneous belief that what government decides it can afford determines what the force should be.

But the most important point to make about Sam's last para is that it seems to imply that underfunding is inevitable. The way a force becomes incapable of doing anything well is by irrational underfunding, and the result is an unbalanced force.

Force 2030 was a balanced force, never perfect, but based on the then current demands of an uncertain strategic environment. It was never a force designed to fight a land-based Asian power in the defence of Australia. But it would have been a great core from which to expand should this have been necessary, or to provide forces to lesser contingencies.

The Government has decided not to fund it, but strategic environment has become even more uncertain since 2009. It is not likely to become more certain or less threatening to match Australia's politically determined funding level.

Photo by Flickr user pyo.